It’s A Second In Life, But It’s Immortal.

It’s A Second In Life, But It’s Immortal: 

An Interview with photographer René Karwowski

By Jacquelyn Cynkar

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with René Karwowski, the B&W: A Look into Black and White Photography Best-of-Show winner for her photomontage entitled USA. We met up to talk about the show and her thoughts on photography. This vibrant, easy-going visionary reminded me of why many of us remain in awe of the photographic medium. As she observes, “It’s a second in life, but it’s immortal”.

How did you get into photography?

It’s a very sad story, actually. Well, it isn’t and it is. When I was younger, my father was a photographer, so I used to sit on the cellar steps and watch my dad develop film, and there was this whole awe about it. I was maybe 5 and I was literally dumbfounded about it all, watching him do all of this – a total crazy mad-man alchemist, dipping and moving and hanging. There was a romanticism about the film, and the whole entire process. I kind of fell in love with it then.briankaldorf_of renesmall

So, my father was always into it and I became fascinated with it and I got into drawing & painting because I was young and didn’t have a camera. I knew I was very artistic. I come from a very artsy family – my dad was a musician and he was into photography, my mother would draw and she is also a ridiculously good interior designer, and my brother is a very talented jazz musician. I always wanted to work with film, but had no money and no access and I kept finding excuses.

But then, and here comes the sad part, almost 7 years ago I had a friend that was murdered by her boyfriend. And I sat one day, going through a ridiculous amount of photos, just to find one of her and I. I found one, one tiny one. She was like a little sister to me, and all of a sudden I said ‘okay, I’m in’. I didn’t care how much it cost; I decided to finance a camera. I felt like I needed to find something beautiful left in the world, because it had been taken.

And, I haven’t regretted it. I’m so sure that this is my medium. I am SO in love with photography.

Let’s talk about the Black & White show. Congratulations on your Best-of-Show win! What did you think of the exhibit?   Actually, it was my first show. I had a friend convince me that my stuff was good and that I needed to put it out there. So I entered, and honestly, I was totally amazed that they took all three of my photos. The Best-in-Show win was even more amazing. I’ve always just been shooting on my own and learning on my own, and having my dad give me tips here and there and saying, “Just shoot. Go shoot”. I’m literally just surprised about it all.

Tell me about your piece USA.

  I had a photo in my head – this thing of smearing black ink, with an asymmetrical design, with hands, and we were watching the Olympics and a friend suggested the flag. And I thought ah, that’s genius, that’s brilliant.

usa - rene michele

So I sat down and balled up an envelope and used ink and drew the star. I took two photos, one of the hand and another with the blur of me pulling the lines, so that I could cut and paste the stripes in Photoshop. It was literally three or four photos that I had layered on top of each other, so that I could keep the blur because everything is so vast in the United States, where we barely say hello and we’re running around like crazy people. And I added the calm of just the one star. Then, I had taken a photograph from the 44th floor of the USX building, down on traffic to get the cars and the symbolism of the United States. It just all came together. I like to play with images for hours and get them to a place where it’s right. I’m pretty happy with it!

 What equipment did you use?     I have a D300 that I love and I shoot on a tri-pod with a self-timer. I was using one of my favorite lenses, the 105mm.   I’m using Photoshop CS4, because I’m too poor to afford a new one. So, if anyone wants to donate, that would be great! (As we laugh), it’s the same thing with Lightroom. I insist on Lightroom, Lightroom is your darkroom. Photoshop is a playroom.

You clearly enjoy working in the black and white realm. What advantages do you think black and white images can have over color photography?

Oh, I do like black and white photography. Color photography is a great medium to express things, but I feel that in today’s society, with all of the technology that we are dealing with and the vast open space that we have to explore, I don’t think people look at a color photograph and give it the respect level that should be there. Plus, it has been abused with HDR and over-saturation, and I don’t think the general public even knows what a normal color image is anymore. When people see black and white photography, you either have the skill level or you don’t. You can’t really hide in black and white, and that brings out who you are as an artist.

Who’s work has influenced you over time; where do you like to draw inspiration from?     One of my favorite photographers is Lasse Hoile, he is a Danish photographer. This guy is super cool and doesn’t even use a SLR, he is old school pulling out Diana’s and Holga’s and Polaroid’s. I really have a lot of respect for him. He can be macabre and morbid, and I have a side to me that loves that stuff and I fall right into it.

When it comes to pure inspiration, everything inspires me. I love to shoot anything and everything. Life is so mundane, but there are so many mundane beautiful things, if you take the time to look at them. That’s really what life is about.

What do you still have left to learn; where do you want to grow as an artist?

From figuring out how to frame and mat, to figuring out what my actual personal style is, I’m open to expanding in a different direction. I try not to put goals on myself in photography because I don’t want to limit myself. There is enough to learn in photography that you could become a jack-of-all-trades and a master at everything you do, depending upon how much time you put into it. In the end, what you stick with is what you truly become passionate about. I’m only 6 years in and that’s way to early to claim, ‘that’s who I need to be’, because then I am closing myself off to something else that I could end up being truly passionate about.

This is where technology comes in, too. I’m so old school, I don’t have a Facebook account. I respect it for what it is, but at the same time I fear that it is going to take the simple beauty out of the skill. And, if that goes, I will be devastated. You need to know how to photograph first.

Speaking of technology, is there anything that fascinates you about the current trends in photography?

 It’s interesting, and I’m fascinated by what’s there. But if you’re not manipulating ISO and aperture and shutter speed then you’re not doing photography. You are doing image creation, which is art and I’m clearly fascinated by that, but it isn’t quite photography. I love it, love what you can do with it, love the apps that you can play with, but at the same time, there is a feel to holding the camera, to manipulating everything in your hands, to using your mind to manipulate what you see, and you can’t really quite get that with the technology that we’re using with other stuff. I am torn about it.

If you are not out photographing, what can we find you doing; what are your hobbies?

I go to a job every day and I shoot. I get sad if I didn’t get to play with my camera. I’m always thinking about when I can get time with my camera.

 Photographers love a great place to nosh, what are your favorite Pittsburgh restaurants?

 I’m such a starving artist that I can’t even afford a car! That is why I live in Shadyside, because I can get anywhere. Sometimes I grab something to eat at Harris’ Grill. There’s Soba, and Noodlehead is now over on Highland. There are so many great restaurants around here. I actually don’t eat out too much though, because I am always trying to put more money aside to frame more photographs! But, this is a really cool neighborhood. There are very open-minded people here; it’s very diverse and everyone matters.

Let’s leave with a bit of René wisdom; what is one thing that you wished you knew before starting down the path of photography?

I would have told myself to finance a camera at (age) two. When I think about how long it took me, I lost a good fifteen to twenty years that I could have been doing what I clearly, truly love to do. If you want it, get it and do it! Photography is powerful. It’s a second in life, but it’s immortal.





Posted in Art

Goldie Blox vs Beasties, Round One

A recent post on the Plagiarism Today blog ( sheds some important light on the current copyright standoff between little girl empowering toy manufacturer Goldie Blox (with a seemingly positive mission statement), and the 80s /90s hip hop band Beastie Boys.

As is frequently the case in infringement claims the infringing party is shouting “fair use” from the rafters.  While the advertising video for Goldie Blox is parody in style (using a Beastie Boy song), the video’s function is advertising to sell products.  Its purpose is that of commercial gain.  On the surface the infringement appears to be parody and therefore I understand supporters of Goldie Blox claiming fair use, but lets think about the intended function of parody in culture and why it can legitimately be claimed in some cases to fall under fair use.  In an editorial or art function it is potentially about free speech.  How can we have a discussion about social issues if we cannot use humor to investigate and engage information about the issues for communication purposes?

If Goldie Blox truly wants to use parody as a foundation for an advertising campaign then they need to hire artists to create original content and pay to license that content, or pay more to own it outright. Then they can use the creative content however they want.  Instead they have appropriated existing intellectual property without permission and are attempting to hide behind the fair use doctrine claiming parody in the context of advertising to boost revenue.

Think of the consequences for independent artists if this type of reasoning was to become a legitimate fair use exemption.   Corporations would be accelerating their exploitation of individual artists at an alarming rate.  Steal original content, include anything that might hint at parody and have your army of legal counsel stand behind it on the basis of fair use.   Bad news for artists indeed.

But, perhaps the most troubling observation in Mr. Bailey’s blog post is the revelation that it is actually Goldie Blox that has initiated a pre-emptive lawsuit against the Beastie Boys,  seeking a judicial statement that the video is protected by fair use.  This is obviously some pre-meditated corporate strong-arm tactic subverting the intellectual property rights of artists via a rather dubious expansion of the fair use doctrine.  Artists everywhere should make sure they understand what is taking place here and its potential impact on their IP rights.

Interestingly, I cannot now find the referenced video online.  Perhaps the backlash has already caused some reconsideration?


Photo Talk

20080211_ellis_0321Camera Arts Creative and The Alliance for Contemporary Photographic Learning invite you to an evening of conversation, concepts and images.  Please come join us on Nov. 6th starting at 6:30pm.

On the agenda for the evening: Keeping creative motivations thriving via personal projects: planning for them, researching them, how they can feed your commercial work / marketing, or just developing photo projects as a way to keep your personal artistic growth moving forward.

Come share your thoughts, experiences, and questions on this topic.  Feel free to bring some prints from completed projects or works in progress. Whether you are immersed in a large project or struggling through a creative block come and share / listen.

Our intention is to establish a supportive creative environment where photographers can gather and exchange ideas, insights and inspiration.

Step away from the computer, come out and spend some time with other visual artists.  Arrive at 6:30pm, discussion starts at 7pm. Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.  All photographers welcome.

See the Facebook event page for details.

There is a camera in there!

What do an 8 x 10 view camera, a 4 x 5 field camera, a Hasselblad, a Leica, a digital SLR, a Holga and a cell phone camera have in common?

There are no images contained within any of them. They are capture devices. As you hold one of these capture devices images exist only as a conceptual prenatal expression to be birthed of the photographer’s heart, head, aesthetic, and awareness.

"Room 311", copyright Sita Mae

“Room 311”, copyright Sita Mae

A camera is the mechanism by which we acquire the image, in essence a tool. Different tools will have different attributes, which may be reflected in the expression, but the tool and its attributes are in service to that expression, neither totally independent of it nor supreme over it. Like a paintbrush each camera / lens and controlling variables will have a different stroke, a different aesthetic gesture. It is a reflection of the artist’s acumen to use those attributes in support of her aesthetic.

Robert Frank would not have opened our eyes to a different way of seeing by using an 8 x 10 camera. In 1959 surely there were many who thought the nature of a compact 35mm camera not adequate to the highest form of the art. And yet, we have Frank’s iconic study, “The Americans”.

Photography is an art form, undeniably, born of technology. To insist on freeze framing the photographic arts in a particular decade where one was more comfortable with (or more truthfully, conditioned to) the technology of the time, perhaps is an expression more of personal frustration and is potentially limiting a comprehension of the art form’s evolution that can only come from considered engagement. To belittle change, especially as options for creative expression via new tools and techniques and software grow exponentially, is to deny the evolution of the art. Disliking the evolution will not slow it, nor will it appease tortured souls proclaiming the cheapening of, or annihilation of the art.

"Lemons", copyright Arthur Hand

“Lemons”, copyright Arthur Hand

By no means is that meant to indicate that an artist must change at the beckon of technology. No, that misses the point, (although in the commercial sector that technological evolution is pretty much forced on you, but by choice can be exclusive of your personal work).

There are artists offering us wonderful gifts of expression working in platinum printing or wet plates or other, dare I say, old technologies. These processes are in service to the aesthetic expression of those artists. That is as it should be. But, I suspect that the higher-level artists working in those processes don’t spend a whole lot of time whining about where the medium is going. I think they are too busy making good art. Making art that is true to their vision.

It is always difficult to see beyond our own context, and I believe currently there are many photographers missing the bigger picture (sorry) when it concerns cell phone images. Yes, there are a bazillion inane, bad, silly images transferred to social media instantly from cell phones, but 95% of those images have nothing to do with photography as contextualized by photo artists. Individuals posting those images are no threat to stealing your editorial or commercial clients, no threat to the retail portrait photographer, no threat to the fine art photographer. I would submit to you that most of those people are not even thinking about photography. What they are doing is having a conversation. Yes, they are simply talking to others. The images serve as a bridge of ambient intimacy. It must be apparent by this time that we have experienced a stunningly rapid paradigm shift in how we communicate with each other. One power of this instant communication via social media platforms is to introduce images into the conversation, and in many cases the images substitute for what words would have conveyed. Remove those images from your contextual prism of photography, and perhaps you will begin to relax. Step back, understand, people are conversing daily with images and that conversation is the primary context, not the art world or academia’s definition of what photography should be.

"Seed Pod", copyright  Jon Lisbon

“Seed Pod”, copyright Jon Lisbon

Think about the power of that shift, people transmitting images almost instantly to have ordinary everyday conversations. For decades Jeremy Wolfe, professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard University, has studied then way humans “see” photographic images. Tests have continually shown that we seem to be designed to communicate via images. We will remember far more details of an image after just one or two seconds of viewing than we do from reading a description of that same image.

The evolution to conversing with images is exploding now because we can share an image just as quickly as the spoken or written word. Physiologically the dramatic shift to communicating with images makes sense. Since photography’s invention in the early 1800’s it is estimated that there have been 3.8 trillion photos made. Ten percent of that total has been made in the last 12 months.

Ascribing an aesthetic value judgment of photography to the capture device (a cell phone) is really kind of a preposterous notion in an industry dominated by technological shifts. As of next week you will be able to purchase a Zeiss Sonnar lens with a 20mp sensor in it, (Sony DSC-QX100). The lens /sensor comes with an adapter to optionally attach it to a smart phone wherein the smart phone will act as the viewing screen and an app will allow you to set the camera’s controls from the touch screen of the phone. The image will be saved to both a memory card in the lens and to your phone, where you can process the image in your preferred apps and share instantly with social media.

From the "Red Light" series, copyright Erica Weierick.

From the “Red Light” series, copyright Erica Weierick.

Look, I think we just stop calling this cell phone photography. There is a camera in there! Or, there are now high quality photo technologies designed with the phone in mind. For the average person it allows them to have a more detailed and effective conversation via images. For the artist it is a unique paintbrush with a different set of attributes and used with sensitivity and awareness allows the artist a precise expression. When you wake up tomorrow morning photography is going to be different than when you go to bed tonight. Get used to that. You can view it as the demise of photography or you can see it as an exponential increase in potentialities.

Jon LIsbon, October 6, 2013

Thanks to the following photographers for supplying images for this post.

Sita Mae,

Arthur Hand,

Erika Weierick,

Jon Lisbon,

Step Away From the Computer

Step Away From the Computer.

We have the remarkable experience of an international candy store of art at our fingertips, along with all the education, and inspiration that can bring. While revolutionary in scope it can also be limiting. It is too easy to immerse ourselves in exploration of the visual arts via a 21” LCD, and don’t we all risk laziness from time to time because of it. While I appreciate the technology, viewing art on a computer monitor (assuming that it is not the primary intended delivery mechanism of the artist) does not compare to viewing the artist’s work in person.

When was the last time you visited a museum (or galleries) in your hometown, or travelled to another city with a museum visit on your agenda?

Standing before the artist’s work as it is intended to be viewed offers an experience of palpable sensation. There is an intensity, a sensuality to the viewing that cannot be represented on a computer. If you open yourself to it, energy emanates from the art. You move past the physical presence of the object to the emotional experience.

Some years ago standing perhaps six to eight feet in front of a Kandinsky oil at MOMA, I was frozen, my feet unable to move and my emotions drawn into some energy reaching out of a canvas from 1914. I began this viewing alone in a corner of the gallery and slowly others gathered behind me. On a secondary level I started to become aware of hushed conversations just over my shoulders, first Italian, then German, then French. Of course, what I was experiencing knew no boundaries of race, nationality, age or gender. The experience of art carries some level of transcendence.

photography, Cindy Sherman, Museum of Modern Art

From the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, March 2012

In March 2012 I travelled to NYC, to see the retrospective of Cindy Sherman’s photographs at MOMA. I cannot recall now how many different gallery rooms were devoted to her oeuvre, but it was breathtaking to move from one room to the next witnessing the artist’s evolution, discipline and technique over different themes, spanning decades of exploration.

A couple of floors down was a collection of more than a hundred Eugene Atget  (February 12, 1857 – August 4, 1927) photographs. Small black and white images, (roughly 7″ x 9″) contact printed from glass plate negatives, offered quiet whispers of precise yet at times delicate observation compared to the psychological assault of Sherman’ s 8-foot color prints. The trip, the experience, as you can tell, still resonates with me.

This does not happen via the computer monitor.

So, just as a reminder…cut the electronic umbilical cord. Step away from the computer. Make the effort. Go and experience art. You will not regret it.

Jon Lisbon, Sept. 2013